BarbHendee.org

News, commentary, and fiction by Barb Hendee, co-author of the Noble Dead saga (www.NobleDead.org); author of the Mist-Torn Witches series, the Vampire Memories series, and more.

The Latest from Barb Hendee

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It's a book birthday!

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Fun news! Goodreads is doing a giveaway of 100 copies of A CHOICE OF SECRETS.

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The People Around Us

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A few years ago, Booklist published a review of my fiction that included the phrase: “Her characters are some of the best in current fantasy.” My publisher liked this line so much it has been splashed on a number book covers. Hah!

But even several of my editors have quietly asked me, “How do you make these characters feel so real?”

The answer is that I don’t know, but for much of my adult life, I have practiced a technique that is often discussed in writing courses: “Pay attention to the people around you and take notes.”

I started doing this in college, and the habit stayed with me. Even snippets of conversations can provide food for thought when it comes to the creation of characters and understanding of the human psyche.

For example, about ten years ago, I waiting in line in a deli, and there were two middle-aged women in front of me. I sensed from their body language that they were friends, but their verbal communication seemed careful enough that I believed they had not “connected” in some time.

Finally, one of them asked, “So . . . how are things going with Mike?”

Response: “I filed for divorce last week.”

The first woman appeared surprised and said, “What? But I thought he quit drinking?”

Her companion nodded. “He did. I’d always thought he was a mean drunk. Turns out, he’s just mean.”

Wow. As soon as I got home, I wrote this down. I considered body language, voice inflection, and the implications in regard to human nature.

Last year, I was sitting in an airport, waiting to board a plane, and I noticed an absolutely stunning woman sitting across from me in the waiting/gate area. She looked like she had just stepped out of a hair salon. She was slender with perfect skin and long, layered hair. Her clothes were expensive. She wore a white silk blouse and a pair of boot-cut jeans (that probably cost $200) with spiked heels. Everything about her physical appearance was perfect. But she had her arms crossed, and she looked angry.

About four seats down the otherwise empty row sat a man who was about thirty-five years old. They were not together, and he didn’t seem to even notice her existence.

Just then, another man, this one tall and well dressed, came hurrying back from the ticket counter, and he appeared worried. After sitting down with the beautiful woman, he began to explain rapidly, in pleading tones, why he could not get them upgraded to First Class (as it was full). She didn’t say a word to him, but stared straight ahead angrily. After a while, he stopped talking and fell silent himself. He looked miserable.

A few moments later, the man sitting down the row from them brightened, and I glanced over to see a short, slightly chubby woman with dark, curly hair (cut into a bob) trotting towards him. She wore flat sneakers and a navy blue T-shirt dress. She carried two iced lattes.  

She smiled at him and sat down, handing him his drink. He smiled back, and they began whispering to each other in the comfortable manner of two people who have been together a long time. Then, she took out an electronic tablet, leaned against him affectionately, and they began to play some kind of word game together.

I looked back to “Couple A,” the well-dressed man and the beautiful woman. He offered to go get her some coffee. She bit off, “We could be served coffee in First Class.” Her arms were still crossed, and she stopped talking to him again. He continued to seem miserable.

Looking back to “Couple B,” who were still playing word their game and laughing quietly, I focused on the man and thought, “That guy is a whole, whole lot smarter than the one sitting a few seats up from him.”

I could not wait to get a moment to write all this down! It filled my mind with ideas for substance over style in the creation of characters. I’ve used variations of these four people several times.

Then . . . not long ago, I had an experience that really stayed with me.

I don't normally spend money at Starbucks, but I was shopping at Fred Meyer, and they have an in-house coffee shop, and I was dragging a little, so I got in line for a latte. There were two men front of me and one man behind me. The man behind me was very tall and in his late thirties. The two men in front of me were engaged in a verbal disagreement about who owed who money.

As they walked up to the counter, this disagreement turned into a near shouting match, and the clerk behind the cash register looked startled. Within seconds, one of the men pushed the other one. At that point, I was startled, and on instinct, I stepped backward, away from the confrontation. In same moment, the man behind me stepped forward and put his right arm in front of me.

Both men shouting at each other seemed to notice everyone else's reactions, and they stopped the argument.

The man who'd stepped in front of me suddenly became embarrassed and actually apologized. "Sorry. Instinct."

I assured him that he did not need to be sorry, and I politely thanked him.

But later in my car, as I was writing all this down, I began to think that his reaction was not a gender issue. Looking back, I realized I've done this myself with children. I think it is human nature to step in front of someone much smaller than ourselves in such a situation. Again, I took notes on reactions, on body movements, on instinct . . . on human nature.

So, I guess the moral of this blog post is that paying close attention to the people around us actually helps us to understand ourselves a little better, and for writers, it can be an invaluable tool in the creation of characters. 


Giveaway: A Girl of White Winter

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Fun news!

Goodreads is sponsoring a giveaway for 100 eBook copies of A Girl of White Winter.

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Don’t Quit your Day Job—Thoughts from the Other Side of “Success”

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I started teaching college in 1996. I am compassionate by nature. I care about the feelings of my students. I care for the feelings and comfort of my superiors. I work hard at my job, and I’m a staunch believer in getting quality feedback to my students—without fail—within one week of the due date. I never complain about anything, even under challenging circumstances, and I sometimes lean towards being a doormat in that I’ll take on extra responsibilities to help someone else. 

As a result, whenever I’m evaluated by my superiors, the evaluations are high, and I am often recommended to teach more classes or recommended for promotion. This is how life normally works in the “real world” when it comes to a career. People who are caring, hard-working team players who do quality work, pick up slack, and rarely complain are the ones who tend to rise their fields.

In 2003, J.C. and I had our first novel published, Dhampir. Other books in the series followed, and by 2005, we were starting to make some real money, not riches, but $50,000 a year before taxes. At the time, we were living in Colorado, and we began considering our choices.

In 2007, we made a big leap. We quit our jobs, sold our condo, moved to the Willamette Valley in Oregon, and bought a house.

We were full time writers. It was glorious.

At the same time, I became friends with two women who wrote for the same publisher as me, and they each had a successful series. One of them lives here in Oregon, and the other up in Washington State. We were all enjoying moderate success. Whenever one of our novels was released, it was stacked up on tables in the front of Borders Books and B&N. J.C. and I even had the Noble Dead Saga displayed in those fancy cardboard stands in the middle of the aisle. It was awesome!

I handled my writing career in the same fashion that I’d handled my teaching career. I worked hard, and I met deadlines. I was considerate of both my editor and the poor folks down in the production department who put in very long hours to make everything happen. I never complained.  I submitted copy-edits and proofread manuscripts early. I thanked everyone for their hard work in getting my books published.

Both women who I mention above behaved in the same fashion. We were all pleasant people with whom to work.

The money kept getting better. In 2008, J.C. and I grossed $160,000. That was before taxes and our agent’s fee . . . but still. For a couple of mid-list writers, that was a lot of money for us. However, instead of investing the “extra” money (above living expenses), we bought all the materials to remodel our house. Hah! We did the work ourselves, but hard wood floors are not cheap. Neither was the high-line fireplace insert we bought.

When you consider that our royalties were between 8-12% of what the books earned, you can imagine how much money we were earning for the publisher. We were treated like royalty.

The problem was that I viewed my writing career as well . . . a career—one that functioned like any other career. I believed that so long as I worked hard, met deadlines, was considerate of others, and consistently put out a quality product, I would continue to do well in my chosen field.

Do I sound like an idiot? Maybe.

By then, I’d become friends with a few editors from other publishing houses, and they occasionally chatted with me off-the-record. So . . . I heard stories about another writer, a man:

“He is vile, just toxic to work with. He’s verbally abusive, complains about everything. He had our publicity director in tears last week. He’s self-absorbed, arrogant, and he treats the people in the production department like minions. He’s consistently late on projects and then blames everyone else. I actually feel sorry for his agent . . . and that’s saying something.”

In the real world, this guy wouldn’t have lasted a month at a normal job (either that or he would have been promoted to upper management). But he sold books. He sold a lot of books, and so his behavior was not only overlooked, it simply didn’t matter. He sold books. He could pretty much get away with whatever bad behavior he felt like dishing out. 

For some reason, I never made this connection. Inside the publishing house, all rules of remaining employed held true, but the writers are different. Our function is to write books that a lot of people will buy. This pays the salaries of the people working inside the house.

In 2011, Borders closed, and the publishing industry began to change rapidly. It became harder and harder to get new books “seen,” and also, tastes in reading material for buyers is always fluctuating. By 2013, many of my writer friends who had been earning solid livings in 2008 were suddenly either watching their royalty checks shrink at a rapid pace or simply not being offered new contracts.

We were no exceptions. In 2015, I realized that I’d need to go back to teaching. But after being out of the field for years and living in a new state when I had few contacts, this proved harder than I initially expected.

However, Mr. Toxic-Pants up above was writing in a genre that still sold big, and he’d made a name for himself, and he received $100k contract on a new book. He became even more toxic and abusive. But he sold books.

I found a place teaching at a lovely community college, and I’ve now been there three years. I work hard. I care about the success of my students. I meet deadlines. I am kind to my superiors. I never complain.

My evaluations are high, and I’m always assigned courses.

I still love to write, and I have a new series out with a new publisher.  It’s fun, and I’m enjoying myself. I will probably always write fiction and tell stories. But . . . if I ever end up with a best-selling series again, I will never quit my teaching job. Not ever.